Post 30 – Day 16 ‘On the Road Again’ (Pt 1)

Post 30a Post 30b Post 30c

There was much more to see of Kolkata but like all tourists I sampled only a minuscule portion of it, yet on this miserly experience I would base my appraisal and authority. I was ready to depart both my hotel and the city. Nice as it all was, I had that ‘itchy foot’ feeling, that irritation that urges one to be on the road again. I had had enough of congested streets and iconic edifices. They came with crowds, and I was used to not many more faces than that of my own for company. There was just one chore left to do before I ran the gauntlet of hotel staff eager to claim my luggage, and who perhaps in return for their assistance would garner a little of my small change. I wanted to mail some postcards home to my family and thought the obvious tactic was to have the lobby clerk consign them to a letterbox, after all I had already purchased stamps, and had even gone to the trouble of appending them to a little space in the top right hand corner of the postcards reverse sides. All that was needed was for an obliging member of the hotel management to place them into an appropriate letterbox slot. Lots of hotels do this, they even do it free of charge for their most cherished of customers. Some even have their own letterboxes, these being strategically positioned in the hotel lobby and appropriately labelled ‘Letters’. In this particular case, at this particular moment, I naturally assumed I was a cherished customer. So in anticipation of swift and polite service I placed the postcards on the receptionist’s desk, happy lady that the hotel receptionist appeared to be, opened my eyes as wide as I could in imitation of the Bollywood film star I had glimpsed on an unknown epic movie the night before, then gave her my very best, tried and practised ‘Namaste’. The word flowed from my mouth clear, pearl-like and honey-tongued. So much so you could be forgiven for thinking it was the introduction to a pick up line. At the very least I was expecting to sweep her off her feet with my obvious command of foreign civility. Every word I had uttered dripped sincerity.

She looked at the postcards. In fact she flipped them over several times. My batting eyes were met with blankness. She didn’t have the faintest idea what the postcards were and my attempts at solicitous explanation fell on deaf ears. It was apparent our relationship was never going to get to that of a first name basis. It was firmly stuck at ‘she’. Turned out ‘she’d’ never seen a postcard in her life, and being innocent as to their purpose the young lady, somewhat perplexed, exclaimed she would have to ask the manager for approval before taking them into her charge. It was beyond her level of authority. I got the distinct impression that her stress levels were elevating and that she was not suffering well my request. So I tactfully declined her offer of consigning them to the next stratum of hotel command, swiftly retrieved the cards, and these still in hand, touched them across my heart in thanks. I had the feeling, polite as she was in return, that the girl was glad to see the back of me. Any deeper meaning to our transaction was not meant to be.

During the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’ it was at Kolkata that the British assembled many of the troops sent to relieve their beleaguered inland garrisons, those that had not been massacred. The first reinforcements to leave Kolkata were the Madras Fusiliers, a not particularly large force but symptomatic of the miscellaneous troops that the British hurriedly sought to muster. The Madras Fusiliers went northwest towards Cawnpore, first by rail as far as Raniganj, a distance of 240 kilometres, then a further 480 kilometres by road to Varanasi in horse drawn vehicles. We drove southwest on what I took to be Highway Route 6, the Great Eastern Road that ran for a length of 1,949 kilometres from Hazira on the west coast to Kolkata in the east.. The British were driven by a terrible urgency and had to suffer the tyranny of 19th Century road networks. We were driven by no other urgency than to get from tourist itinerary point A in Kolkata to my destination at tourist itinerary point B somewhere in the state of Orissa, this state indicated as Odisha on some maps. To do this we would, for a brief moment, skirt the southern boundary of the state of Jharkhand, a relatively new state in the Indian geopolitical scheme of things. I forget why but the name Jharkhand can translate either as ‘Land of Forests’ or ‘Piece of Gold’ and was carved out of the southern half of Bihar as recently as the 15th November 2000. Understandably, therefore, Jharkhand does not appear on old maps of India at all. Along this part of the Great Eastern Road I was to encounter a road tyranny of a later century.

Outside Kolkata we rejoined the convoys of brightly coloured Tata trucks, my driver still being the same one that had driven me to and from Gadkhali on my venture to the Sunderbans. He would deliver me, hopefully, to my destination then depart, for there another driver would take his place. There was a little touch of the speed car enthusiast in my driver, as I have alluded to before, so the prospect of reaching my destination continued to demand a certain leap of faith. It was only the slow speed of the traffic that gave me a sense of hope, a feeling that on balance the likelihood of surviving was better than the likelihood of not. I would have preferred to have been bushwalking.

Away from Kolkata the landscape evolved first to farmland and then to plantations of Eucalyptus trees and copses of bamboo. Though eucalypts have now been widely planted across the planet, nevertheless the frequency with which the plantations were in evidence was a surprise. I live among thousands of eucalypt trees but I had just not considered encountering them in profusion in India. They are not native to India, the genus and its closest relatives, such as Corymbia, being naturally restricted in distribution to Australia and with a few species found in parts of New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines. But it turns out that large scale plantations of Eucalyptus of different species have been planted on the Indian subcontinent. Their planting has largely been driven by the subsistence need of villagers for firewood and timber, and the need to relieve pressure on native forests. About 85% of the plantation wood produced ends up as firewood, the main source of energy available to Indian villagers who, it must be remembered, constitute more than 70% of India’s population. And the population continues to rise such that pressure on native forests for forest resources is relentless. Forest cover per capita is extremely low, at 0.075 hectares, and is likely to reduce further with the increase in the population.

Eucalypts were apparently first planted in India around 1790 near Bangalore, by Tippu Sultan, the then ruler of the state of Mysore. According to one version of history he had received the seed of sixteen species from Australia. This would have been only a few years, two or fewer to be precise, after the establishment of the first British settlement at Sydney Cove. Most plantations in India were established between 1960 and 1980, generally by state forest departments and forest development corporations. In West Bengal since 1963 more than 200,000 hectares have been planted, these to reforest degraded lands but also to replace so called ‘low value’ forests. This can be a vexed classification for low value might in fact prove to be native forests with high conservation and biodiversity values, though deemed to be low value only from their potential to supply timber. Even secondary forests, slowly growing where heavily logged primary forest once stood, can have high conservation values.

Initially, large areas of native mixed species forest were cleared for eucalypt plantations, however, this is generally being reversed with native species being allowed to re-establish after first or second harvesting. During the 1980’s India’s forest area stabilized at around 64 million hectares of which 18% is plantation forest. The large scale reafforestation seen in some regions in the 1980’s reflects radical policy and management changes. There is no such dramatic reafforestation to be seen in Australia, rather a journey by road through central Queensland, as an example, will reveal the clear-felling of countless hectares of forest and woodland by farmers simply to avoid the then Beatty state government’s plan to introduce restrictions on the felling of native forest. The Queensland government gave a two year forewarning of its intensions, and bulldozers of monstrous size worked day and night to clear the landscape taking advantage of the ‘window of opportunity’.

Initiatives in India, grouped under the banner of ‘Social Forestry’, recognise the legitimate need of local communities for forest resources, and government actively encourages rural participation in the management of natural resources. Social forestry encourages growing forests on private land and increasing the total area of land under tree cover. The scope of social forestry seeks to create woodlots in village compounds and government wastelands, the planting of trees on roadsides and canal and railway easements, the afforestation of degraded government lands in areas that have been subject to unauthorised tree harvesting, and the promotion of farm forestry and agro-forestry in combination with agricultural crops. The area of land available for the achievement of this approaches 200 million hectares, of which three quarters is agricultural land into which tree crops could be integrated.

Although social forestry has an enormous potential to kick start mass reafforestation the concept has been criticised for its over-emphasis on the use of eucalypts to achieve its goals. Some critics claim that the overwhelming drive for Eucalyptus has overlooked economic, social and ecological factors. Indian environmentalist and writer Vandana Shiva charges eucalypts with nothing less than ‘ecological fascism’, stating that Eucalyptus is water intensive and so reduces water available for other tree species, reduces available soil moisture and reduces local water tables, and may destroy the hydrological balance in ‘vulnerable ecozones’, such as the Deccan Plateau, contributing to aridity and soil erosion, and eventually desertification. Vandana Shiva further charges that Eucalyptus is nutrient intensive, creating deficiencies for other plant life, a process exacerbated by its low return in leaf litter to the soil, and so does not promote building of humus thus resulting in overall nutrient impoverishment. He also claims that eucalypts are toxic due to growth inhibiting, ‘allelopathic’, properties which serve to reduce other plant life, restricts the germination of other species, as well as being detrimental to soil micro- and macro-fauna. In Orissa, a yield study in 1993, of mainly eucalypt plantations established between 1984 to 1988, and totalling over 40,000 hectares, found on average that 40% of the plantation areas sampled were considered non-productive.

The large volume of eucalypt poles and timber pulp that flooded on to the market resulted in a price crash, the farmers not realising the anticipated economic returns. Demand for eucalypt resources plummeted in some areas and as a result root stock was removed and a return to the cultivation of annual crops ensued. However, many of Shiva’s environmental claims have been questioned. India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development quotes study outcomes claiming that eucalypt species have faster growth rates and were more water efficient than some native species, citing that eucalypts consumed 0.48 litres of water to produce 1 gram of wood as opposed to, for example, 0.55. 0.77 and 0.50 for native ‘siris’ Albizia lebbeck, ‘sisham’ Dalbergia sisoo and ‘jamum’ Syzygium oumini respectively.

Nevertheless eucalypts may be unsuitable for large scale planting under the remit of social forestry on social, political and biodiversity grounds. Though there is evidence that eucalypt plantations in India can be utilised by a number of native animals, the experience worldwide is that where exotic trees are grown as plantations, as with the large scale planting of exotic pine trees in parts of Australia, then few native animals are able to survive there. Those that do utilise such plantations are either common species with broad ecological tolerances or are temporary visitors, their presence dependent on the retention of adjacent remnants of native forest.


3 thoughts on “Post 30 – Day 16 ‘On the Road Again’ (Pt 1)

    1. I’m guessing that you refer to values and/or adverse impacts of eucalypts. In Australia there are numerous ecological studies that demonstrate that few native animals are able to utilise plantations of exotic trees (such as pines). Even when plantations of a single eucalypt are established then reduced animal biodiversity can result. Though I experienced some antipathy towards eucalypts in India, nonetheless they do represent as valuable resource as firewood, building timber, agricultural charcoal (‘biochar’) etc. As I biologist I would prefer to see native Indian species planted, but on practical grounds it would be wastefull simply to destroy eucalypts without a social benefit being obtained from their staged replacement by indigenous forest tree species.


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